Last week I wrote about the lack of global outrage over the Islamic State’s enslavement and rape of thousands of Iraqi girls and women.
I’ve found the outrage. The column provoked a deluge of email from readers asking what they can do for these young women. So here are some suggestions on how you can help.
There is a pressing need to mobilize more public awareness about this ongoing tragedy and to galvanize U.S. politicians to do more for the victims. Meantime, concerned readers can donate to humanitarian aid organizations such as Yazda, which seeks to provide support and counseling for girls who have escaped.
So far, this modern-day slave trade has received startlingly little global media coverage. Most victims come from the Yazidi religious minority, an ancient non-Muslim sect that the Islamic State regards as infidels. The jihadis justify their rape of Yazidis (and sometimes of Christians) with selective quotes from the Quran; they buy and sell the girls on an open market or hand them as chattel to Islamic State fighters.
The girls were seized a year ago when the Islamic State invaded northern Iraq and decimated their communities. The lack of coverage is especially surprising given that one Islamic State victim was a 25-year-old U.S. aid worker, Kayla Mueller, captured in Syria and forced to become the personal sex slave of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before, she was killed, allegedly in a coalition air strike.
Coverage of this tragedy has paled compared with the headlines generated when the jihadi group Boko Haram kidnapped around 300 Nigerian schoolgirls. A global campaign generated massive attention, as many entertainment celebrities – as well as First Lady Michelle Obama – held up placards emblazoned with the famous hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
The Nigerian girls were never rescued and little is known of their whereabouts. But 10 times as many Yazidis are in captivity and much more is known about their situation. According to the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, “we know their names, their hometowns, ages, in many cases we know where they are being held.”
An international publicity campaign – hashtag #SaveYazidiGirls – might encourage Arab or Western governments to seek ways to rescue some of the victims. It might also attract celebrity attention, which in turn draws media: Angelina Jolie, take notice.
Toward that goal, concerned readers can also sign the change.org petition calling on President Barack Obama to help the girls (www.yazda.org/change-org-petition). The petition is being promoted by Yazda, an aid organization founded by a group of talented young Yazidi Americans (several of whom emigrated here after working as translators for the U.S. military during the Iraq war). The effort has collected nearly 50,000 signatures.
Politicians notice such petitions when the number of signatories soars. A similar change.org petition that was started by a Yazidi high school student in Coventry, England, garnered 200,000 signatures and drew the attention of British media and members of parliament. If the U.S. petition could outdo the British numbers, it might finally galvanize the White House, Congress and the media.
That in turn, might generate more U.S. help for Kurdish forces, notably Syrian Kurds who have rescued many Yazidis. It might inspire more targeted coalition air strikes to rescue enslaved captives, or more funds for middlemen to extricate some of the girls.
And the petition might also promote more U.S. government and private aid for the hundreds of women and girls who have escaped the Islamic State. The Kurdish regional government that is hosting them is overburdened, and the Iraqi (and neighboring Arab) governments have done little to help.
“When the women escape, they are still living under very difficult conditions,” says Abid Shamden, one of Yazda’s founders who now works as a senatorial aide in the Nebraska legislature. Most of the survivors, some as young as 11, are stuck in desolate refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many have endured multiple rapes and seen their male relatives slaughtered.
“One of the biggest problems is providing psychological therapy to the escapees.” says Matthew Barber, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago and expert on Yazidi culture. “They are so emotionally damaged the question is whether they can have a normal life.”
Unusually for the Middle East, with its shame culture that stigmatizes female victims of rape, the Yazidi community and its religious leaders have fully accepted these victims back into the community, Barber told me.
But few counseling resources are available in Iraqi Kurdistan, and only a handful of small aid organizations focus primarily on the rape victims. With volunteers and staff who speak the Yazidi dialect, Yazda is setting up a counseling program, in cooperation with the Christian aid group Samaritan’s Purse. To donate, visit www.yazda.org.
Barber says any licensed clinical psychologists who want to volunteer to train Yazidi staff would be welcome. He is heading for Kurdistan for a year to help Yazda expand its work.
Other groups helping Yazidi women and children in camps include UNICEF (http://supportunicef.org/iraq) and the International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org). In addition, Germany has brought in scores of former Yazidi slaves for medical treatment, a step the administration should copy.
But few Yazidi rape victims will ever return home. They say they will never again trust their Sunni Arab Muslim neighbors, many of whom collaborated with the Islamic State.
Concerned readers should urge their congressman to introduce legislation giving Yazidi victims of sexual violence visas to resettle here.
The female victims of the Islamic State barbarity deserve a second chance at life.
Trudy Rubin’s email is email@example.com.